Ireland’s history is filled with the names of noble souls who fought and died to break her chains of bondage. Some who suffered and died for that cause are less known than others. They led no insurrection; they made no memorable speech from the dock; they held no position of power; but theirs was a martyr’s role nonetheless. They were the common Irish whose quiet sacrifice nurtured and preserved the dream of freedom. On September 18th 1851, Ireland lost one of her most courageous and dedicated daughters whose name should be as well-known as that of Emmet, Pearse, and Tone. Her name was Anne Devlin.
Born in 1778, she was a cousin of two United Irish rebel leaders, Arthur Devlin and Michael Dwyer; she was also a devoted Aide to the bold Robert Emmet, leader of the second rising of the United Irishmen in 1803. Posing as his housekeeper, she helped him plan the rising and carried correspondence between him and other leaders associated with the failed rebellion. She was a proud and dedicated woman and Ireland’s freedom was her only dream. When the rising was crushed, Emmet went on the run into the Wicklow Mountains and Anne saw to his well-being as arrangements were being made to smuggle him to France. The Brits were aware that Anne knew the hiding places of Emmet and other escaped leaders, so she was arrested and tortured to get her to reveal their locations. She refused and was locked in solitary confinement in Kilmainham Jail.
For three years, Anne was subjected to torture, bribes and the brutal indecencies that only women prisoners can suffer at the hands of depraved jailers. Yet she was never broken. She remained loyal to the cause and betrayed not one of the men her jailers sought to capture. In their efforts to make her talk, members of her family were incarcerated with her, including her 12-year-old brother who contracted prison fever and died in a cell near her own. Her body and her heart were broken yet still she refused to betray Ireland’s heroes. When Prime Minister Pitt died in 1806, there was a change in the British Administration in Ireland and Anne Devlin was finally released. By then, she appeared like a broken old woman at just 28 years of age! She had contracted a debilitating case of Erysipelas, which left her limbs numb and feeble and which plagued her for the rest of her life. She disappeared into the slums of Dublin’s Liberties and married a man named Campbell who died in 1845 on the cusp of the Great Hunger, leaving her with a son and an invalid daughter. She managed a meager existence by taking in wash.
In the 1840s, Dr. Richard Madden, researching the history of the United Irishmen, was directed to a poor old washerwoman living in a miserable hovel in a stable-yard in the Dublin Liberties. He learned of Anne’s sacrifice and became an admirer, occasionally helping her with donations. Unfortunately, Dr. Madden worked on government assignment and was transferred to Cuba, spending many years away from Ireland. Upon his return, in September, 1851, he went straight to the Liberties to see Anne where he learned the sad story of her final days and death just two days earlier. According to his writings, a woman in whose room Anne Devlin had once lodged, told him, The poor creature, God rest her, it’s well for her, she’s dead. There was a coffin got from the Society for her and she was buried yesterday. To his inquiry of what she died from, the answer was, She was old and weak, indeed, but she died mostly of want . . . She was very badly off, not only for food, but for bedclothes. Nearly all the rags she had to cover her went, at one time or another, to get a morsel of bread.
Dr. Madden was heartbroken and found her grave in the pauper’s section of Glasnevin cemetery. It was an incredibly tragic end to a most noble lady. He had her remains exhumed and re-buried in the patriot’s section of the cemetery known as the Circle, right near Daniel O’Connell, and erected a memorial over her. He left this account in volume III of his monumental history of the United Irishmen: The extraordinary sufferings endured, and the courage and fidelity displayed, by this young woman have few parallels. She was tortured, frightfully maltreated, her person goaded and pricked with bayonets, hung up by the neck, and was only spared to be exposed to temptations, to be subjected to new and worse horrors than any she had undergone, to suffer solitary confinement, to be daily tormented with threats of further privations, till her health broke down and her mind shattered, and after years of suffering in the same prison, when others of her family were confined without any communication with them, she was turned adrift on the world, without a house to return to, or friends or relations to succor or shelter her. The day will come when the name of Anne Devlin, the poor neglected creature who, when I knew her, was dragging out a miserable existence, struggling with infirmity and poverty, will be spoken of with feelings of kindness not unmixed with admiration.
But thankfully, the times are changing. In 2003 on the bicentennial of the 1803 Rising, Anne was remembered on one of three commemorative Irish postage stamps and in February, 2004, the South Dublin County Council proudly unveiled a statue of Anne in the village of Rathfarnam, just a few yards from the house in Butterfield lane where she served Robert Emmet and Ireland. The statue caused some controversy as some historians wanted a statue of Emmet, but saner heads prevailed, This beautiful statue of Anne Devlin not only adds character to Rathfarnham village, it highlights the significance of its history. Irish-Canadian poet, Paul Potts, dedicated an entire chapter in his book of essays, Invitation to a Sacrament to all who helped her and he wrote that, it is true that she was a servant girl; it is equally true that she was one of the glories of the world. Because of her a light shines out, from the slums around the Coombe and from the ploughs on a Wicklow hillside, to equal the brightness of any star. This Wicklow peasant working girl beat the British Empire. They had been beaten by the spirit of an unconquered Ireland, housed in the heart and mind of a simple Irish girl. Anne Devlin is an inspiration to all who hold freedom dear.